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Exploring the Political Economy of Its Quantitative Expansion

Self-financialisation and the Qualitative Shifts in Engineering Education in Kerala

The self-financed quantitative expansion of engineering education in Kerala since the beginning of the 2000s should not be seen as a logical expansion consistent with demand and supply. Rather it should be primarily seen as qualitative, contributing to a change in the meaning of what engineering education is and has historically been. The qualitative aspect of this expansion is argued from the political economy of engineering education and is deriving from the displacement of functional role attributable to engineering education following the crisis of skills in the new accumulation regime and the new role that engineering education has been playing in the regimentation of the overall field of higher education.

The expansion of higher education in Kerala is best reflected in the engineering degree programmes in the state where from nine colleges with an intake capacity of 2,810 seats in 1991 it has expanded to 180 colleges with an ­intake of 57,544 in 2017 (Government of Kerala 2018; Mani and Arun 2012), excluding central institutions and private deemed universities. While in 1991, all the seats were under public provisioning (Tilak 2016), including state-owned and state-­aided colleges; by the time we reached 2017, about 90% of the seats and colleges were in self-financed sector under public–private managements. Though this trend is more or less consistent with the national trend (GoI 2019), Kerala becomes an interesting case because of the tumultuous history of self-financed engineering education since the 1990s and the present consensus it enjoys even within the political left that led the struggles against self-financing engineering colleges during their inception.

This paper traces the expansion of self-financing engineering education that fell/falls under the academic control of state universities in the state and proposes that this expansion in kind has qualitatively changed what engineering education has been/is in the state. This demands us to see the quantitative leap in numbers as a qualitative shift in meaning and this has important consequences for engineering education policy and practice in the state. The paper argues the case from the perspective of the political economy of engineering education in the state and suggests that looking through the political economic lens offers insights into the newer modes of privatisation of/in higher education and the renewed aims that engineering education plays in the contemporary.

The form of engineering education practice in the state is being recomposed so as to adapt to the needs of the neo-liberal economy, and in this adaptation, the traditional distinction between public and private education gets blurred. The distinction is now no longer between ownership or management of institutions, rather it is between how various institutions adapt to this refoun­ded principle of the political economy. This is deriving from the changing character of capitalist production towards which engineering programmes are directed to, where the centrality of skilled labour is being displaced towards a labour force that is characterised by gener­alised deskilling, and the functional simplification of labour process.

The Case of Engineering Education in Kerala

In 1957, the Government of Kerala (GoK) absorbed the College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), the first engineering college in Kerala started in 1939 by the Travancore state, opened another in Thrissur, and provided grant-in-aid the next year to open three more engineering colleges under different community managements (A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University 2014a). This expansion coincided with the Second Five Year Plan that vouched for rapid industrialisation and broadly with the Kothari Commission report that emphasised national education’s shift towards industry-focused education (Kumar 1996). A decisive shift in engineering education happened in the mid-1980s, following the shift in national policies towards information technology (IT), the liberalising measures taken by the centre in 1991, and the withdrawal of GoK from directly operating or aiding engineering colleges in Kerala.

The establishment of the Institute of Human Resources Dev­e­lopment (IHRD) in 1987 under the GoK, as a trust to start the first engineering college managed by an agency—and hence not directly the government—in 1989, was reflective of this shift. The first set of self-financing engineering colleges, initially under government ownership and soon under private ownership, was opened within the next five years that also marked protests primarily by various left parties as they were symptoms of neo-liberal turn in the state policy. Meanwhile, the IT boom that India, especially Bengaluru, witne­ssed gave rise to an unprecedented increase in the establishment of engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu (TN), Karnataka, and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh (Vijesh 2014). This coupled with the political climate of Kerala, which was still sceptical of self-­financed engineering colleges, gave rise to large flow of students from Kerala to colleges in these states. The lax government policies of the three neighbouring states and corresponding flow of fee-paying students out of state began to be seen by entrepreneurs in Kerala as well as the GoK as massive profit and revenue loss. Pressure from parents, student communities as well as the possible profit and employment that private self-financing colleges would garner for the state lured the GoK and the beginning of the 20th century witnessed opening up of more self-financing colleges in Kerala (Krishnakumar 2004). Thus, while prior to 2000, there were only a total of 20 engineering colleges in Kerala, an additional 108 new colleges were opened in the self-financing sector—both by government, state universities as well as private ­managements—in the next decade. With a ­combined intake capacity of 57,544 students spread across 180 institutions in 2017, 3,340 seats are in government colleges, 1,850 seats are in government-aided colleges, and 52,354 are in self-financed seats (GoK 2018). Refer to Figure 1 for the structure of self-financing engineering colleges that falls under the academic control of state universities in the state.

The gross enrolment in higher education also increased rapidly in the decade 2000–01 to 2012–13 from 9% to 22.9% (Tilak 2016) and is 37% now (Goi 2019). This increase was termed as “student-­financed or fee-based” (Kumar and George 2009; Tilak 2016: 12) because of the significant increase in private unaided coll­eges as was reflected in the percentage of self-financing colleges in Kerala, and the term “self-financing” is used to signify this trend of institutions arranging and managing their own financial resources to run programmes without aid, especi­ally from the state. In 2007–08, about 90%, 89%, 84%, 67%, 82%, and 45% in pharmacy, nursing, engineering, dental, ind­ustrial training institutes (ITIs), and arts and science colleges, respectively, were in the private self-financing sector (Tilak 2016; ­Kumar and George 2009). This is sharp contrast to the previous decades, especially in the 1991 when there was no such colleges in any of the streams mentioned above except in the case of ITIs where about 90% of the colleges were in private unaided sector (though there were parallel colleges that charged fees according to their local contexts for an analysis; Nair and Ajit 1984).

The public interest in engineering education took a major turn following the suicide of a Dalit female student—Rajani S Anand—in 2004, who was a student of the IHRD-owned College of Engineering Adoor because of financial constraints. It was attributed to the refusal of a bank to provide the promised educational loan (Fin­ancial Express 2004) and Kerala saw massive protest aimed at the bank that refused her loan, the college where she studied, and self-financing institutions as a whole. This brought some public scrutiny for self-financing education as a whole and the report on fee structure and admission process in private self-financing colleges tabled by Justice K T Thomas Committee. It had recommended a uniform fee structure in all the seats in self-financing colleges, and these recommendations were in stark contrast to the government policy that had introduced a differential fee structure to students in these colleges. The existing fee structure was decided by the government and 50% seats in self-financing colleges were to be filled through the common entrance examination that the government conducted. This indeed was the rationale when the state began to allow private self-financing colleges to open in Kerala when the then chief minister had proclaimed that the opening of two self-financing colleges was equal to one government-run college as 50% of their seats were to be filled by government at a pre-decided fee (Times of India 2003). The need for a commission to oversee admission and fee structure was warranted following the move by some of the private colleges—especially those managed by the Catholic church—to increase the management quota that was allotted to them. After the Supreme Court intervention, the GoK formed the committee to oversee admission and fee structure. But following protests against the recommended fee structure, the government formulated an ordinance to overcome the hurdles in the admission process and proposed government-regulated fee in half the seats and a “reasonable fee structure based on the cost incurred” (Krishnakumar 2004) in the remaining seats.

The suicide of Rajani in 2004, the image of a poor student whose suicide has been termed as “murder” (quoted in Chua 2014: 12), and the political climate of Kerala created an atmosphere where private self-financing professional education—across various disciplines—began to be looked upon with suspicion. The state did not allow any new private engineering colleges to be set up for four years after Rajani’s suicide, while it had allowed the opening of 61 self-financing engineering colleges in the four years prior to 2004. But 45% of the students in private professional institutions in the neighbouring states of TN and Karnataka were from Kerala (Krishnakumar 2004). This meant that a large number of students were demanding professional education. Judiciary was also in favour of the self-­financed sector (Vijesh 2014) and the GoK began to reconsider its traditional concept of state-subsidised education for all. Thus, the new Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government that came into power in 2006, whose cadre died fighting self-financing colleges and whose student-wing took up major strikes in 2004, allowed the opening of 54 more self-financing engineering colleges between 2008 and 2011.

There were serious concerns raised from many quarters reg­arding the quality of education in the new colleges. The low pass percentage of engineering students in self-financed coll­eges proved many of the concerns, and the establishment of A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University (formerly known as the Kerala Technical University) that took over engineering education from various state universities in 2014 to specifically oversee professional education was a result of the flak that the GoK received from the High Court of Kerala following its suggestion to improve pass percentage or shut down colleges with poor performance (Devasia 2015). The overall legitimacy that the privatisation of engineering education derived from was the assumption that there has been a steady increase in the demand for engineers in the new eco­nomy and engineering education is providing that number, thereby securing the families as well as maintaining steady growth for the state. But as Mani and Arun (2012) point out that the “out-turn rates [in engineering education] have come down significantly” from 1991 to 2008 and ­“the expansion in capacity of undergraduate [engineering] education has not led to improvements in supply” (p 7). In 2007, for example, when engineering colleges were under different state universities, out of the 24,000 students admitted, only 9,300 graduated with a pass percentage of 38.7; this number stands at 12,803 when 35,104 students were admitted under the new university in 2019 with a pass percentage of 36.47, and the number for comparison with 1991 figures is 90% when the ­intake was 2,795 (A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University 2019; Mani and Arun 2012). Of the students who passed in 2019, 78% or 10,000 students were offered jobs during campus placements (Times of India 2019). That means only a quarter of the current number of students actually entered the stable engineering job market.1 Thus, 30 years down the line, there is only an increase of five times in the absolute number of ­engineering graduates passing out in time when the number of colleges increased 16 times and intake about 13 times.

Politico-economical Context of Engineering Education during the Expansion

The expansion of engineering education in Kerala coincided with the shifting aims of engineering education wherein educational aims began to be separated from the demand of production; hence, as a means in the larger production process, towards an end in itself—as an industry in ­itself (see Ovetz 1996 for an elaboration of universities “bec­oming business themselves”). This separation from the functional role of engineering education in training students for engineering industry is a direct result of a shift from the Fordist factory-based industrial production characterised by the planner state model ­towards a dispersed Fordist or post-Fordist production and fin­ancialisation turn that the global capital has taken since the 1970s. The tendency that followed this turn was the accelerated pace with which automation was pushing skilled labour out of the production process. Machinery and automation were increasing at such a rate, as a response to the rising labour disruptions across the world and the falling rate of profit, that the moment any concrete labour process of a worker became repetitive, machinery was able to capture it and replace the worker. This meant that the centrality of the concept of a skilled worker, or an ­engineer in our case, was being replaced with a labour force that was characterised by generalised deskilling and a labour process where there has been a functional simplification of concrete labour processes. Anybody could replace anybody, and because of the crisis in skills2 and the flight of capital, the ­moment labour resistance arose, and precarity began to be the standard condition of workers on a mass level (Berardi 2009; Hardt and Negri 2001; Virno 2004).

Also, the IT industry in India during the early days developed because it provided cheap labour in the service sector of IT production. The multinational companies based in India ­rec­ruited engineering graduates to mostly work in the support environment where product development was the least priority and there was no requirement of domain skills (Dossani 2005). This was consistent with the globalisation of production process where each moment of production that earlier used to be undertaken within a factory or office space in a given space-time was internally divided and dispersed across the world, depending on favourable government policies and cheap ­labour such that the cost of labour and a regimented workforce, more than skill of labour, became the main contributing factor in production. The machinery could now do any job if it was tasked with, and they were spread across the globe; the task of the engineer was now reduced to a cog in the huge ­infra­structure of communication that now existed between production process dictated by micro-machineries or servers.3 This process has been extended to the digital industry as well with its production-service-support systems spread across space-times (Witheford 1999). It is in this global context of production that the expansion in engineering education needs to be situated. The rising student enrolment in Kerala, and in India, in engineering was during a time when in the poli­tical economy of production, skilled labour was being dispelled from traditional production processes to make way for the mass worker whose socia­lity or soft skills were more important for production process.4 At the same time, factory was being dispersed into the society such that those spheres of production/reproduction-like education became the direct site of accumulation for profit. Within education, every aspect that was earlier not directly mediated through exchange was monetised (Rikowski 2017) such that each moment of higher education was “unbundled” and sold separately in the market (McCowan 2017). This is the meaning of privatisation—a deepening of capitalisation in education where the monopoly of the planner state is displaced because production no longer is constrained by the national economic condition or democratic regulation or the necessary disruption asso­ciated with putting labour to work. Production is now deepened and dispersed; this dispersion is bound together for speculation, and this shift has two corollary effects on engineering education practice. First is the displacement of engineers themselves from production due to acceleration in disruptive technologies that displaces skills the moment they get settled such that providing training in technological production goes into crisis (for a study of crisis in training and education; Neary 1997 and Rikowski 2015). The second is the simultaneous transformation of engineering education as a site for direct accumulation by prodding them to be “overt profit-making business” (Ovetz 1996: 120) since it is now the rate of profit that an engineering institute returns which decides its relevance.

The emergence of the IHRD in Kerala in the late 1980s is a reflection of the shift in the concept of the public and where funding engineering education from government exchequer was proving to be meaningless, irrational, and against the market logic of productivisation of the “reproductive sphere” of education. Higher education as a strategic unified sector was unbundled and professional education, like engineering education, which returned immediate profit to investment, became the strategic centre of privatisation. This unbundling was itself internally divided along various technicalities of ownership, admission criteria, and brand value. Further unb­undling within engineering education has been happening following the entry of massive online open courses, national and international accreditation regimes, engineering aptitude-testing agencies, and engineering project and internship agents where different private/new-public-management-guided-public players provide services for a price that is borne by either the students themselves or the public exchequer. Each of these newer modes, while aiming to improve the quality of engineering programmes in the state, raises further difficulties in demarcating the traditional public–private distinction. While engineering education was a demand from the masses to have stability and security during precarious times and in their struggle to have affordable quality education aimed to displace the historically exclusionary form of organisation of higher education in the state, its emergence was subjected to the command of this political economy. And this subjection of engineering education as a new unbundled field for direct profit is one crucial ­aspect of the qualitative shift that happened to engineering education during this phase and contributed to the changed meaning that engineering education has ­acquired in the new regime of accumulation.

Hierarchy and Legitimacy during Privatisation

The abysmal pass percentage and open corruption coupled with the high cost of education did not create an explosive situation for engineering education in Kerala such that popular anger was turned towards the field itself. There were stand-alone incidents like the suicide of Rajani in 2004 or the death of Jishnu Pranoy, a student of a self-financing engineering college in 2019, that sparked popular ­anger.5 But in both the cases, the target was not engineering education as such, rather it was the corrupt college management or a bank or a particular coalition government that were targeted. While questions about the very rationality of “an effective engineering education” during post-Fordist dispelling of skill from production as well as the abysmal quality of education that was provided to the students had the potential to displace the very organisational form of engineering education, they were rationalised so that engineering education practice could continue without a radical reordering that could disrupt the social relations operating through a hierarchically organised engineering education practice in Kerala.

Privatised engineering education got legitimised in Kerala through the hierarchical arrangement of engineering colleges such that this hierarchy was attributed to factors external to engineering education, and engineering education as an entity was attributed a continuity such that this new character of engineering education-as-an-industry-in-itself was hidden from the public view. When new self-financing colleges were started in Kerala and other states, it was logically presented as an extension in kind of the existing engineering infrastructure (GoI 2003). But the meaning of engineering education internally in terms of what it provides to students as well as its external relation has been transformed such that no essence of the entity called engineering education can be located trans-historically outside the neo-liberal relations in which it has now been embedded in.

Privatisation of higher education, following Ovetz (1996), is not simply the government selling off existing public institutions to private players or government withdrawing from providing for public institutions but is equally the necessity of new or old institutions to prove their continued legitimacy through profit in the market. Thus, those institutions that are owned and funded by the government too bec­ome “privatised” because they have to prove their worth in front of market scrutiny and survive lest the government imp­lements austerity measures or students abandon them. The ­major critique that the establishment of self-financing colleges and contractualisation of constituent parts in government-aided colleges faced in Kerala was with respect to the social justice claim and the decreasing quality of engineering education.

How engineering education responded to these critiques was by presenting a deeply segregated system as a natural system and by discursively separating the ideal engineering education from how it is being implemented in colleges in the state. Acc­ordingly, while there is a possibility to impart engineering education effectively in line with the “industrial demands,” which was itself a non-standard term in neo-liberalism, the hurdle faced in this ideal implementation got transposed to the concrete practices of engineering colleges (Rahman and Unnikrishnan 2015). This is the meaning of the new subjection of engineering education wherein there emerged a concept, materially related to the political economy of global production, of a curricular and pedagogical engineering education practice that could become effective if the management of infrastructure was ideal. This concept was materialised through the dispersal of engineering colleges across the country and at the same time a centralisation drive that saw the passage of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) Act of 1987. This measure, the standard format of the post-Fordist turn where centralisation through dispersal or integration through differentiation is the modus operandi (Citynotesinquiry 2020), ensured that engineering education as a concept was untarnished and protected from the muddle of its practice, though only for a short term. Thus, only the practice—in terms of curricula, pedagogy, scale, and infrastructure—is different between diff­erent colleges, which differentiates between the quality of a ­degree holder from an engineering college in Kerala and that of an Indian Institute of Technology or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (IIT–MIT); but metaphysically both are engineers. This metaphysics emerged because the political economy of global production whose dark underbelly of “manual workers” towards which the mass engineering programmes of the global South contributed to was hidden from public view.

Thus, the emergence of new engineering colleges is attributed the same reasons, namely the demand of industry and population and the need for research in technology (A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University 2014b)—as that of the older engineering colleges as well as other prestigious colleges that contribute to “intellectual workers.” This legitimised the GoK’s decision to allow the setting up of 44 new engineering college in 2001 and 2002 under a 50:50 formula that was mentioned in the first section. Thus, it was proposed that the new self-financing colleges would cater to the social justice needs by providing half the seats for a subsidised price to meritorious students and will contribute to the demand of the industry by increasing the outturn of engineers from Kerala. Both did not happen. But the trend of new colleges continued with 51 new colleges opening in the three years, namely 2009, 2010, and 2011. This should have caused serious harm to engineering education as a sector since they brought down the quality and were openly selling seats for a price in the market. It is in this context that the point of conceptual separation of engineering education as an ideal, separate from the messiness of its practice, contributed to.

Engineering education managed to develop a subjectivity, presented to the public as independent and untainted by corruption, by relating the practices in reputed engineering colleges in Kerala as the closest manifestation of its ideals. Thus, the older engineering colleges and some of the newly emerged private coll­eges in the state were attributed a pride place in the implementation of engineering education as an ideal, and other colleges were placed in hierarchical relation to these institutions with legacy. Publicisation of student placement records as well as student choice during admissions are examples of how the hierarchical place of colleges is imprinted in popular imagination.

Consider the case of CET—the oldest engineering college in Kerala, which has been attracting the highest ranked students in almost all its departments (GoK 2012) and has been consistently performing well in the placement record of the students (Career Guidance and Placement Unit 2019), and ranks high in various ranking frameworks—that has a pride place in the technical education field in the state. Popular dailies report that its students in the recently concluded placements were offered salaries in the range of `20 to `40 lakh and is at par with the National Institute of Technology Calicut, a central institute; the Cochin University of Science and Technology, a prestigious science and technology university in Kerala; the Model Engineering College, a reputed self-financing college under the IHRD; and Rajagiri School of Engineering, a private self-financing college owned by the Catholic church (Kur­uvilla 2020; Narayanan 2020). While top companies would be recruiting from these colleges in their own interest, what it does for engineering education is the simultaneous creation of these institutions as the gatekeepers of quality and the closest manifestation of what engineering education can ideally do. Thus, they become an index of the ­“authority,” in the sense of the term used by Benjamin (2015) who uses aut­hority in the context of reproducibility of art, read objects, in the age of technological reproduction, that simultaneously lends “intentionality” and “agency” (Boltanski 2014: 12) to it, that other engineering colleges in the state, most of them at least, do not have claim to. This authority for CET and other top colleges is their authority over production of quality engineers in Kerala and is no doubt deriving from the qualities that as an institution they have. But it is important to place the emergence of these qualities in the specificity of the contem­porary times.

While CET as an institute, for example, existed for a long ­period, it did not much matter to the larger population to know what happens inside CET or how CET could be relativised with other institutes in Kerala or across India—like the IITs that have existed since India got independence. CET then existed as just another college, along with numerous other colleges across Kerala, whose doors were anyway closed to the largest sections of the population. As an institute, CET was not involved in any competition with other colleges—engineering as well as other professional or arts and science colleges—through which it needed to derive its own legitimacy. CET was rather seen as a place meant to train students to become good engineers, whose job profile was more or less defined by industrial standards and the role that CET had to play was to just do its assigned task in skill training. The intake of students in engineering programmes was even reduced in recession years, like the case of the then Regional Engineering College Calicut in 1968–69 (Aglasem 2019), signalling the structural and inherent relation between engineering colleges and industrial output in those times. This logic of educational aims—the aim to distribute educational goods to the selected candidates and not worry about institution’s life and legacy as a separate entity outside of the training that it gives to the students—was evident across institutions in the planner state model that shared the welfare state consensus. Here, the autho­rity of CET and similar colleges—or these being the indices of ration­alising the overall quality of technical education in Kerala—did not exist. And the colleges’ role and responsibility in a student’s career ended with their course completion.

This begins to change in the late 1970s, and one instance that signals this change in the character of CET, within and without, is the opening of its alumni association in 1976, which coincided with similar alumni associations opening in other government engineering colleges in Kerala like the Government Engineering College (GEC) Thrissur in 1967 (Government Enginee­ring College Thrissur 2019). But most activities of the alumni associations in colleges were limited in scope and like in the case of GEC Thrissur, they were dormant till the 2000s. But in the 2000s, with the emergence of new engineering colleges in the state and across South India, especially and with the rising standards of living associated with IT-related professions (Fuller and Narasimhan 2007) and the corresponding value which engineering colleges that train these professionals gained in the public imagination, engineering education and CET were refoundedThe CET that was entering the 21st century—though had all the formal structures of the old CET spatial location, students, teachers, presence of traditional engi­neering branches—was rather a new institution. It was new because what made CET in the 1960s and the 1970s, those ­social relations of production6 that it shared with the social whole have been internally transformed in the 21st century. There is an authority over engineering education that is being attributed to CET and similar institutions now. There is a comparison, both ­internally and externally, of these gatekeepers to other institutes across board. They have been explicitly embedded, materially and discursively, in the web of relations that form the education industry in the neo-liberal conjuncture.

While the intention that gave rise to CET when it was formed and during the stagnant period of expansion of engineering education in Kerala—across the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and the 1980s—did not have a component of the constant need to legitimise itself in front of market and public scrutiny, it is now very much part of CET. The membership in CET—as students, teachers, non-teaching staff, educational departments of the state, the companies that recruit students, the coaching centres that admit students for preparation of various kinds of examinations as well as the tuition centres that have popped up across the locale that cater to students—signals a place in the society itself. CET now has been norma­lised, and this normalisation is not to be contrasted with a past wherein they had an “aura” (Benjamin 2015), a “unique presence” in the larger educational setting in the popular or statist imagination. Rather it is precisely through this normalisation that there is a simultaneous creation of the imagination of an “old institute,” an institute that has a tradition and a legacy and can be discursively traced back as the parent of all engineering education in the state.

It is now imagined as an object that has internal qualities of the object—an engineering coll­ege—and at the same time contains elements that go beyond itself. This externality—the quality, internal, and dialectically related to its external conditions—derives from the attribution of CET being the “original” engineering college in the state and is seen as something that created, discursively, new engineering colleges in the state.7 The emergence of the new engineering colleges and the need for a dedicated technological university in Kerala (Rahman and Unnikrishnan 2015) are now traced backed to the same reasons that gave rise to the emergence of CET in 1939, and demand-of-the-industry as an entity that caused the emergence of engineering colleges is attributed a continuity and hence legitimacy: CET was started due to the demands of ­industrial development, and with CET, engineering education began in Kerala, to paraphrase Unnikrishnan (2019). This engineering education, now connected to the legacy of CET, has a logical continuity in the emergence of new engineering colleges in Kerala. What the above statement posits is that at the time of emergence, the demand of the industry was to create only a handful of engineering colleges, but this demand has inc­reased manifold, and the logic of ­industry–college relation is now transported to the discourse of engineering education in Kerala, which reads the rapid acceleration of engineering education as corresponding only to a rapid acceleration in the forces of production and not something that is a result of the neo-liberal turn which internally transformed the relations of production as well and gave rise to a new meaning to the existing institutional formations. This creation of CET as well as other engineering colleges, which now claim a legacy, and the continuation of the legacy and the role in the production of engineers serve two purposes. One is internal to CET where the legacy helps to mask its contingent location in a flux of new engineering coll­eges as just-another-college and to refound itself and stand apart from other colleges in the state when market scrutiny arises, and the second, which is external to CET, where the abs­tract legacy attributed to CET in turn legi­timises the privatisation turn that higher education in general and professional education in particular has taken in the state by natura­lising the emergence of private self-financing colleges in a ahisto­rical reading of ­institutional emergence.

In Conclusion

The emergence of self-financed professional education not only added more number of seats and colleges to engineering education as a sector but also changed the form and content of engineering education policy and practice in the state. The functional role that traditional engineering education played in production process has been in crisis in post-Fordism, and for the new regime of accumulation, it is being mobilised as a new site for profit. This mobilisation not only changes the meaning of the practice of engineering education in the state, but the practice as such also. The concrete role that this change in meaning plays is to guide the public scrutiny away from the organisation of engineering education in the state with its deep hierarchy, corruption, and low quality of education that is given to the majority of students enrolled in the new colleges. To effectively do the same, engineering education as a concept is abstracted from its concrete practice such that mass anger is directed at particular players rather than the concept itself. Various policy changes like the AICTE Act, formation of the new technical university in Kerala, and introduction of various unbundling processes within engineering curriculum need to be read along this political economy of engineering education in the state. Such a reading can offer us insights in a manner that the forest (political economy) is not missed for the trees (public versus private debate and various curricular changes within the engineering programmes aimed at quality improvement).


1 Even though the number of pass-out students is low, engineering students enter the market either after a prolonged waiting period for a job or mig­rate to West Asia after clearing pending papers—though this is mig­ration is increasingly becoming difficult—or pursue competitive exam coaching. But these are the least desirable options for engineering graduates as far as the state and technical education policy are concerned.

2 For a review of literature on “skills” in the economy rooted in neo-liberalism, see Avis (2018).

3 While this is a general statement, the particular role that Indian engineering graduates play in the highly exploitative work conditions in the global South and how it apparently “supports” production and products needs to be emphasised but is beyond the scope of this paper.

4 The expulsion of traditional skilled labour from production is derived from the broad Italian Autonomist position. See Wright et al (2017) for a review of this position.

5 Jishnu, student of a self-financing engineering college, was found dead in his hostel room following the management’s disciplinary action against him due to an alleged examination malpractice. Investigation into the suicide disclosed serious gaps in the management’s allegation of malpractice as well as revealed oppressive practices in the college. See Nair (2019) for an ­account.

6 Social relations of production here emphasise the rationalisation of socio-technical division of labour in the society in and through institutions. More than looking at the institutional form of CET and society’s instrumental usage of institutions to maintain status quo, the thrust here is to see institutions as the concrete form of the abstract capitalist universal and capital as fundamentally a social relation. Thus, institutional practice is a social relation in essence. See Holloway and Picciotto (1977) for an outline of social relations of production.

7 This has been evident from newspaper reports and government documents as well as from the interview responses that the teaching faculty, alumni, and the present student community gave to me as part of the larger project of which this paper is a part of. For example, see how this history is constructed in Unnikrishnan (2019), “CET’s 1970 Batch Moots Steps to Celebrate Golden Jubilee” (2020) and George (2019).


A P J Abdul Kalam Technological University (2014a): “Engineering Education in Kerala,” viewed on 10 February 2020,

— (2014b): “Technical Education-Kerala,” viewed on 15 September 2020,

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Updated On : 29th Jul, 2022
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